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Pax Vobiscum

Entertaining as Jeremy Paxman’s stance on contemporary poetry is, it’s nice to see real poets come out and attack the issue from the other side. George Szirtes’ unpicking of the strands of Paxman’s rhetoric is a particularly good place to start: it points to a much more detailed map of what poetry is, one that simply cannot support the kinds of generalisation that Paxman’s media-oriented remarks (perhaps even psyche) puts forward. There’s a world of difference between Paxman’s desire to see a poetry that talks to the ‘people as a whole’ and Szirtes’ sketch of the different ways that 20th-century writers have reached for their audiences.

Szirtes hits closest to the mark, though, when he questions just what Paxman means by the accusation of ‘inaccesibility’. It’s something that pervades popular perceptions of poetry, from GCSE students through to the men and women on the Clapham omnibus. Historically, poetry has had few answers to this broad criticism, or none: the possibility of a ‘difficult’ poetry only applies when poetry is put before an audience that its authors either do not intend or cannot comprehend. Throughout its ancient and chequered history, poetry has either functioned as an emphatically popular product, as in the mass-consumed Romantic works of Scott and Byron, or as the touchstone for the thoughts of an elite for whom perceptions of difficulty function as (desirable) social gradation. Some of our most popular poetry bears this latter stamp: Shakespeare’s sonnets, for example, described a fictionalised version of the social movements of a select group of readers. It’s only through a rather later process of democratisation that we’ve been able to compare our own significant others to a summer’s day, rather than see in its pronouns the rich young aristo ‘Mr. H’ of Shakespeare’s dedication.

And doesn’t this rather bring us down to earth with a bump. Suddenly we see the fear of difficulty for what it is: that wonderfully English terror that someone, somewhere, is looking down their nose at us, teacup in hand and pinky extended. We fear difficulty precisely because we are afraid that someone else out there gets it (which they generally do, the world being large and stuffed with sharp people), and that they may appear in a puff of smoke to tell us what gauche little shits we are for not seeing the reference in line 7 to the Franco-Prussian War.

Not that it’s fair to lay the blame for this at the reader’s door. If we as a society hadn’t used the interpretation of poetry as a tool for negative gatekeeping in the past, the general populace (inasmuch as people can be general) wouldn’t be nearly as afraid of it. The state-sanctioned appropriation of literature for the purposes of categorising its citizens as useful and useless has its downside, just as the state-sanctioned encouragement of people of all ages and demographics to engage with literature has its upside.

But as avenues of debate go, this is more futile than most. The real sadness of Paxman’s comments lies in the very Richard-and-Judiness of someone looking for work that sums up some ill-defined ‘now’ – as though he was seeking to pre-empt the unassailable snobbery with which the future views us all. For all that the Forward prizes are trying to prevent poetry from fading out of that future history, their efforts are badly hamstrung by their anxiety over the terms in which that history will capture us. Poetry, Paxman seems to imply, must huddle defensively as a medium: poets, no matter their actual subject, message, or intent, must face the inquisition together, despite the fact that poets themselves more often than not reach across media to help define the loci of their flexible, synaesthetic art.

Even more importantly, such groupings seem to bear no real relation to readers either. Rather than attempt to present readers with books on subjects that interest them, it forms the specious expectation that we should enjoy every book we read simply because it finds expression in a particular medium or form. As somebody who tries to impart to others a love for both reading and writing, this feels somewhat misguided. Whilst I try to show students the rewards of engaging with texts they find difficult, expecting them to find equal enthusiasm for every text I ask them to approach is to deny them a freedom of perspective. The best students build their own curriculums, and helping students get to that point is the great challenge and the great reward of education in literature. Poetry is only a literary ghetto because (ably egged on by our collective subconscious, the media) we’ve made literature into the same anxiety-issue we’ve made gender, or medicine, or diet, where we simultaneously gorge on the cookie jar and curse the inaccessibility of the celery stick. It is perverse to ask for work which leads us to a new understanding of the world, yet contains so little that is actually challenging that its conclusions require no expenditure of thought from the reader.

Which brings me to Paxman’s J’accuse. Or, as Szirtes has it, “Are you, or have you ever been, an incomprehensible poet?” To which the simple answer is yes. But then I am lucky enough to have had time to engage with both personal and textual difficulties in my writing; some of them I resolve, some remain as questions which are no worse for being raised or re-expressed. I write about history, which is itself a complex subject, and in that mirror I look for the flaws which are my own disfigurement. It would be strange if I couldn’t see in that process the forces that will warp my meanings, intentions and beliefs into commonplaces or obscurities – though unlike Paxman, I’d prefer not to lay too many bets on what the future will call relevant, pertinent, or enduring.


Posted 4 years ago

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